The Spine

Kibbitzing About The Kibbutz


People of my age and perhaps a bit younger may have read and must have heard of Children of the Dream, a book by the psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim who watched children growing up in the kibbutz. Rumor had it that it was "my" kibbutz at which I learned to dislike socialism and hard work.

At any rate, during the last two or three decades, the dream has been dying, not only at Bettelheim's kibbutz, but at mine and just about everyone else's. Speaking of Americans who think of a kibbutz at which they stayed a few weeks or even months as theirs, it was of a course an appropriation of something that was others'.

The dream was heir to the idealistic equalities of Charles Fourier, an 18th century French philosophe, maybe to the American 19th century utopias during "the golden day," and the collectivist stream of Zionist thought articulated by A.D. Gordon, of whom almost none of you have heard. Children were reared from infancy not at their parents' home but in a children's house, no one earned a salary or everyone earned the same, meals were eaten at a collective dining room (a depressing venue with food that mostly approximated a cheap cafeteria, there was not much of an aesthetic, etc. etc.) At "my" kibbutz, pictures of Lenin and Stalin survived into the 60's and the red flag and the Internationale were icons of the Sabbath, not prayer, mind you.

Still, the kibbutz had its charms and its strength as an institution that gave élan to the yishuv, the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine, and made an agricultural revolution really out of the desert that the great agronomist René Dumont thought exemplary. And it is. By the way, there is an essay by Dorothea Krook in a book titled Politics and Experience and presented to Michael Oakeshott upon his retirement. The theme of the essay was that the kibbutz was an aristocracy in all ways but riches, an aristocracy of poverty.

Institutional prosperity ruined the kibbutz and middle class aspirations. It appears that equality is not, after all, a human instinct. And the fact is that Labor Zionism, which governed Israel until 1977, subsidized the kibbutz economy, and subsidized it richly. So the story is not so clear as it is made.

Except in one aspect, and that is that the kibbutz was always and was last summer during the war with Hezbollah the aristocracy of arms. There is now competition with national religious elements on this matter. But let it be said that the kibbutz, being 1.5 % of the population, lost 18 % of the dead. Tel Aviv had one young man killed.
So the kibbutz is still an aristocracy of sorts. And of honor.

All of this is prelude to a very evocative report by my friend Isabel Kershner in the Times: "Kibbutz sheds socialism and gains popularity." It's an intricate report, too, about developments I'd only heard in the wind.

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